Wednesday, June 25, 2014

America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton

The new Lana Del Rey album is out this week, like the Stygian tide, and with it "controversy" so perfectly-pitched that she and her salivate-on-cue detractors must be in on some cosmic PR joke. Take it from an old punk rocker-turned hippy-turned-hipster-turned post-Peaks-ian, who missed all his grabs at the big brass ring: it is good to die young, whatever Frances Bean may say. The only freedom an artist has from eventual irrelevance lies embedded in the obsidian wind that whistles through gratings of that other sewer's shore, or the cane in the fields at night on San Sebastian. In death, alone, can artists safely say they made it. Once past life you're way past worrying about the critics and audience indifference, hit counts and box office. The same way you used to forget your troubles at the movies--safely darkened to the point of anonymity in that eternal shrine to our shared past--you forget your irrelevance in the field of 'breaking new artists' via a before-your-prime death.

There's no difference between living through the movies and living through death. Either way you coast into immortality like second base on a field of feathers. If you're writing or painting or singing only for the edification of the future rather than the adulation of the pearl-twirling swine of today, then rest, in peace and assured, no matter how maligned or ignore you are today, some distant unborn generation will pretend to have read or heard or seen your work. First, though, they need to know you died, to prove you're serious - and so they aren't afraid of running into you at the part while they're reading your book and then you start trying to autograph them or worse. Immolation purifies art from compromise by cumbersome human mortality. Lana Del Rey knows. I'd say she knows it so well she doesn't have to prove it. I'd say she's free from the iffy benefits of validation, and has achieved this purely through facing her own mortality, via the bi-polar abyss.

As we learn only after much resistance in AA or therapy, in surrender lies the only true victory. The only true heaven is hell, accepted.

And, from Lana Del Rey's perfectly framed early 60s car crashes and second shooter denim paranoia, we stagger down an off-road shortcut through the slashed tire car wreck James Dean 50s, and all the way back to the 40s wartime graveyard of Val Lewton. It's no accident that all the Del Rey backlash ballyhoo started up again yesterday-ish while simultaneously TCM played Lewton's acclaimed low-key masterwork THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). Like all Val Lewton's best work, Victim is suffused with his deep wartime homefront guilt and paranoia, conjured to scare and yet comfort the Rosie Riveters on their lonely dinner breaks. Their man was gone but death was right there. All Lewton had to do was dredge the cables up from the ocean bottom like collective unconscious tentacles. His best work is like a modern art exhibit after the public has long drifted home and the lights are off; the crumpled invites and plastic champagne flutes loll ominously in the breeze of an open window. And then there's Lewton, creeping in with his art, the art of the nervous insomniac who remembers as a child seeing Death watching over his cradle, making sure the orphanage of mortal light was taking good care of him, ready to yank him back at the first sign of carelessness on the part of the living staff.

Icons from top: "Summertime Sadness," I Walked with a Zombie"Tropico"
Lana Del Rey and Val Lewton both create a vibe where the ebb tide of childhood abandonment anxiety is stronger than any fear of death. When this abandonment tide washes through the psychic land, once the terror subsides, the crap is washed away and all that remains are the immovable immortal icons, the stone memorials built to last, in whom we first found a source of protection that wouldn't abandon us. Thus Elvis, John Wayne, Marilyn, and of course Jesus all loom on Lana's heavenly plane like death coaches. On Val Lewton's post-tidal surge shore are immortal archetype statues from Greek and Egyptian myth: Cerberus, Set, and later on San Sebastian (above). Waiting in crevices of the stone stairways and rustling cane fields and wine goblets and calypso songs, Letwon's idols are literally etched from rock. All-seeing blank eyed demons that are only vaguely visible in the shadows, animated black-on-black splotches that resist all but the final Rorschach meaning.

So while some are threatened or indignant (same thing) over this death drive fancy of Del Rey's, I say hey, man, be grateful: her death drive is visible, in our sights to share, because all she has to do is pout, turn slowly away, and take a backwards slow mo Peg Entwistle dive off the Hollywood sign and down through Diane Selwyn's pale blue skylight and it's YOU who die, not her. Keep her in view at all times. Once you can't see her you'll know she's behind you, with a gun or sharp sword. You can follow her around like Boris Karloff follows the hottie Greek wurdulak in Lewton's ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945); you can be a whole internet worth of Karloffs reigning down torrents of ancient superstitions and gossip on anyone who'll click your link; you can drip a whole nation of self-appointed sanity over her sun roof... it does not slow her rush home to your death one hourglass grain.

Lana Del Rey knows memories and movies are the same thing and that every home movie of happier times must speed up as you approach the black hole realizations that the people you're watching onscreen are long dead. She even casts herself as the bad guy most of the time, as in "Summertime Sadness" --driving her lesbian ex-lover to jump off a bridge ("kiss me once before you go") while she pouts in fog machine student films and home movies that repeat faster around certain points as the weeping lover falls, the drama finally so impressing Lana she jumps/falls too, the doubling inherent in an L.A. lesbian affair fully embraced- - drowning in each other's reflections in each other's eyes, downing cliffs and Hollywood sign letters, their eyes stare straight ahead, batting lashes until they morph into a thousand penitent film strips striping down Hollywood's naked back. They come already refracted like an ever-opening lotus mirror reflection of cinema: hence Rita/Betty=Diane in Lynch's quintessentially L.A. masterpiece MULHOLLAND DR. (below); hence the shifting dynamics of the nurse and her glamorous willowy zombie in Val Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942); Klo-Klo/KiKi's continual mirroring/sacrifice deferral in LEOPARD MAN (1943) and Irina's attempted devouring of Alice in CAT PEOPLE (1942).

Sister, she called me her sister.

It's fate, baby. Watching CAT PEOPLE today on DVD it's possible to see just what's in the deep dark shadows around the swimming pool: there's a black hole cartoon animation in there, a shape that mutates from vertical to horizontal, ever so briefly. When Irina turns back human she moves from paw prints to high heels prints (not bare feet - Lewton never tries to literalize), she wears a fur coat that when she changes tightens in around her and, if you look close at her body lying on the ground outside the panther cage, she looks like a bearskin rug with a teddy bear's head sewn to one arm, but we only see it from far off, up on the street lamp. In ISLE OF THE DEAD we can see, if we look very close, the way the undead Mrs. Aubyn seems to materialize out of the moonlit reflections on a stone wall, like she's only semi-corporeal but never in that common special effects way that would make it obvious. DVD's clarity alone makes these things at last visible; they were never meant to even register consciously. There was no way to pause and rewind before video tape... No one ever knew for sure just what they saw, if anything, so they remembered all sorts of darkness.

Lewton's subtlety reveals a Russian's love of great literature that extends deeper down than the average bourgeois tenure track, deeper even than the blood (his real name is Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon), deeper than the cauldron from which are dredged all our hopes and fears, and our tomorrows are like a thousand yesterdays. And great literature is always about death, that's how you know. It's where we go to prepare, to remember that a vast elevator full of blood is only a thin, easily-punctured epidermal layer away, and the only freedom comes in whether to ignore this dread out of fear, or embrace it out of courage, love, and rock and roll who-gives-a-fuck-it. This is where Lana Del Rey's coming from with her comments about being a feminist and thinking it's cool to die young. Would you get mad at David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, or Hemingway for saying those things? No. And they're all dead, at the hands of the same assailant, the only one that truly makes it. Performance.

Now, if my dad killed himself because of Lana Del Rey I'd be pissed. But my dad was killed by doctors (he died, after all, in the hospital) and it's hard to be pissed at them, as a whole. At home with an ocean of bourbon and ginger ale he was immortal. He kept death close so it couldn't sneak up on him. But that hospice-strength IV cocktail's got no spirits. Without his whiskey and gin, the door opened right up and waved him in like a pit crew waving in a race car. Maybe when we try so hard to keep the body alive we kill the soul. Who wants to die sober? Only those for whom sleep is the cure-all; for some of us, the fucked up artists and writers who do what we do because we'd go even crazier if we didn't, the only cure-all is music, literature and films. We can die because we've already left our immortal imprint on the living world. Lana Del Rey is both the cure and the cause for the cancer of Hollywood because she embraces the theatrical aspects of emotional anguish, with herself as both the sufferer and the object of longing; her faux-period home movies, painstaking in their iconic recreations, are like the restaged car accidents in Cronenberg's CRASH, only transcending sex in the service of art, music, and obsession.

I love Lana Del Rey because of her pro-death chanteuse-rock fuckithood, not despite it, and I have no problem with it all being a persona put on by a failed pop star named Lizzy Grant. If her schtick didn't resonate we wouldn't be talking about her, wouldn't feel strongly one way or the other, and if her story is really a confession, then so is mine, though not, apparently, Rolling Stone's and Jezebel's -- though both were once edgy in their ways, I hear. Now they're both 'institutions' successful enough to feel they have something to lose, something they'd kill to protect (see CinemArchetype 5: The Human Sacrifice) but never endorse dying for. Lana Del Rey is a persona that has nothing whatsoever to protect, so can engage in a kind of high wire free-form self-immolation theater. Animas with respectable DSM-IV counts are plentiful but then they have kids one day and Whammo! The persona is replaced, even grown out of, but is it really a growing out of it or just doubling and diluting? How many great sexy young actresses have we lost to their children? Even when these starlets come back to us, babies delivered, they're not the same: their dangerous heart--that thrilling gleam in their eye--now exists off camera, transferred to vessels still mewling and puking in nurse's arms.

It should have been me, puking, like the princely changeling in Midsummer Night's Dream. I had to quit her, my whiskey... sweet whiskey, and ride off with AA Oberon. My sober life --that's my cross to bear, my LSD Albert Hoffman problem child, the thing that robbed me of the gleam, my lost Lenore. But I'm not a star. No one even notices. Not even the guys at Liquor Warehouse on Broadway, still the best prices in New York City.

But I still haven't forgiven Angelina Jolie, or Liz Phair. Ladies, you broke my heart!

Never stop smoking or drinking - even knowing both are poisons,
for you've already spilled more than secrets (bottom: SEVENTH VICTIM)
Now you love your children the way you used to love the fans.
Now your love is funneled to some off-camera cradle.
Those who love you from speakers and screens are left orphans.

We can't see through your kids' eyes,
for we are not John Cusak trapped in John Malkovich's child.
But either way you will soon age, past this singular moment.
And you will know the sting of this abandonment
once we both eventually move on.

There's no way to stop the ravaging.

You'd have to leap off the edge
like Lana Del Rey.
But she does it in advance of our gaze, and so
we will never move on
from her.
She's already
gone, and you - mom,
you've fucked it all up.
The apron string hydra, newly hatched,
whines you away.

In a semi-deserted Bijou in 1943
a nervous young assembly line worker calls in her sick day,
watches SEVENTH VICTIM or THE LEOPARD MAN at the half-empty Bijou.
The dark shadows of the empty seats surround her,
where a boyfriend or husband would be.

Then, onscreen in the shadows she sees him, beckoning...
She knows in her heart he's just been shot down over Europe.
Doesn't even need to read the evening telegram.

Lana Del Rey is the eyes that discern changing shapes in that darkness, and Lana Del Rey's eyes are that darkness. On digital, nothing escapes notice... even the void hidden within the void.

This is the girl
That's why Val Letwon's morbid preoccupation with death is so relevant. Using deep black shadows he reveals that the thing wartime America most fears isn't death but loneliness, abandonment, being entombed --all of which is brilliantly realized by the cheap B-movie sets where even the sky seems indoors (and is)--of being left alone too long in a dark empty country with only the ghost radio signal one clings to for company, for news of the vast armadas of sweethearts and sons vanished into the bookending oceans.

And then... Frank Sinatra's voice like a phantom mellow echo; his mastery of mic technique giving his songs an almost unworldly amniotic sound markedly different from the rest, welcoming you to join him in the pulsing warm fog between two shores: "if our romance should break up / I hope I never wake up /if you are but a dream." You are. Hardly even born yet. There in the unrealized amniotic slumber of the Stygian crossing, as Sinatra's songs coast overhead in ceaseless tachyons towards the past, you can hear your father's conception becoming re-buried in the sunken space between the words. 

Lana keeps her expression blank --she does it for our haunted projector, so too Val Lewton's deep black shapes --they accept our projection just as American small towns became a ghost towns for the wartime duration: the younger healthier men all drained away by old Europe's vampires, even in Hollywood, until all that's left in Hollywood are German and Russian Jewish intellectual exiles (and gay Weimar actors whose only roles are as the very same Nazis that drove them out). The young male stars of the B's are now tenderfoots, the old men, the crippled, the meek, the short and reedy. And everywhere, in the air wafting from Europe, the smell of death --the inevitability of it--in ways we can't imagine with our current wars and their paltry kill levels (we might lose a few dozen thousand but nothing close to Europe and Asia's combined sixty million in World War Two). Only a full scale nuclear war would even put a dent in us now. We need hundred of million dead, and it would still be the same % as we lost in WW2--a spit in the bucket. Half of us could die and we'd only be where we were in the 1970s, when we first started to worry about overpopulation via films like Soylent Green (1973). It's not death that dooms our planet, but life. Our blind clinging to health like panicked survivors swamping the lifeboat. If we could all just die like gentlemen, like the great Solomon Guggenheim on the Titanic--if Lana Del Rey can lead us by power of bad example, and if we leave right now--we just might make it.

We won't.

Echo of my undead soldier (from top) Del Rey, DEATHDREAM
Lana Del Rey and Val Lewton know we're not going to make it, and they see and hear and reproduce the ghost of America's past in the deep shadows of the cinema. Their work is already self-aware, feeling its way backwards, seeing their audience for what they are, already dead, or soon dead, relative to the immortality of movies and recorded music. Del Rey makes music for America's ghost future/past to haunt the wasteland with, but for now she's all alone, like any still-living phantom. As Pitchfork notes she's "an utterly distinctive figure in popular music, not part of a scene, with no serious imitators—and befitting someone completely off on her own, she’s lonely." There are a few artists over the years who have explored similar ghost transmissions: Miles Davis' trumpet echoing through the primordial pre-ears-to-hear-it howling of an uncooled Earth in Agharta; Kubrick's use of "Midnight, the Stars and You"; Lynch's use of Roy Orbison and Julee Cruise... but none live and breathe within that ghost transmission - none play on the idea that--even if you weren't alive to hear them sing--the sound is encoded in the crystal receivers at the core of your DNA.  

Lana Del Rey--her "self" as persona, her videos, her willingness to invite nanny state feminist shock and outrage--returns Freud's 'death drive' to its preferred verb status, floored and drunk down Route 66. Her music is ideal for drug overdoses, lover's suicide pacts, long drives with tearful anorexic self-cutters, and self-immolation at the graveside of James Dean. Without Morissey-moping but rather with hair done up and radio playing Elvis with JFK convertible top down, smoking, hovering over Marilyn's lifeless body like a wraith, hiring an actor to dress like Elvis and sneer while rubbing up against the old time microphone stand in front of the John Wayne's rawhide coffin, to paraphrase the Donne-quoting devil-worshippers in Lewton's Seventh Victim, death falls to meets you as fast, halfway. And death x death = life.

"National Anthem" - note vivid attention to period detail and home movie posing 
while at the same time revising JFK into a contemporary-ish sexy, rich, cultured rapper, and 
gaggle of cute biracial children. Like so many of her best work, the music and imagery are linked and
build to a  final 'bells' montage i.e. the final moments of DON'T LOOK NOW, or the last seconds of 
Del Rey embraces the sacrificial phoenix icon of the damaged hottie in ways Lindsay Lohan never understood well enough to make part of her art, to use it rather than be used by it (painting a fictionalized self-portrait vs. being someone else's paint). When it comes right down to it, Lohan is sharp, talented, and ballsy but LA has robbed her of self-perspective. She's mystified why she always lands in jail and loses her film funding. Lana Del Rey skips all that and just films in the jail. She avoids the trap of co-dependence or prison or rehab by becoming the 'act' of the drunk, the Baby New Year of the Mulholland Death Drive. Where Lohan avoids the stake and the torch of the frightened villagers by promising to get help, Del Rey climbs right up and starts the fire and directs the camera angles, but it's an act, man - the villagers never gather for real because they're already there in effigy. Del Rey acts it so she doesn't have to be it, whereas Lindsay is it but tries to act "normal." If you get angry at Del Rey because she's fake (shouting "hey Lana, why a-you change your nice-a Jewish name?" from across the street) or are worried because she's real, well - all your rants and raves will do is boost her hit count --like the boost in album sales she got after her hostilely-received 2012 performance on SNL (see "Kiss Me Del Rey"). 

The Leopard Man
Val Lewton's poetic dread of death similarly produces films that hang inches from the darkened grave, performing/exorcising the collective demons of wartime, so he doesn't have to go fight and die for real. He has to prove himself somehow, feeling the terrible guilt reported by so many stay-at-home men during World War Two. The best you can do if you're an artist on the home front is try to capture death's lightning spirit in a statue of Hermes or San Sebastian watching over the scared endangered souls, understanding in this the entire primal purpose behind art as totemic sacrifice, a giant burning man made of straw, a sand mandala patiently perfected then dusted away. The true artist never hides the skull in the ice cubes because, when the death wish is externalized for posterity, one achieves immortality. Death is pleased that you've honored him and so spares you for another year, the living ghost retina burn outline of his long ago flown-free firebird cohering from the flames.

"Summertime Sadness" 

Del Rey trusts we're not going to kill ourselves just because she says it would a sweet gesture, would show her we really care. That's her whole secret, believing in our intelligence as much as we believe in hers. How many films other than Lewton's or music videos other than Lana's with this level of trust? I sympathize with Kurt's daughter but really, Rolling Stone, it's you should be ashamed for soliciting angry responses from a girl who never got to know her father any better than we did. That doesn't reflect badly on LDR's statement, or FBC's retort, only on your journalistic 'ethics,' RS. You who were a once mighty countercultural institution (even smart enough to be aware of the paradox in that phrase) are now reduced to passing gossip, angling to be ground zero of a viral thread, leaping down the throat of anyone speaking out against the principles of bland nanny state life-for-life's-sake-PG-tedium (rock out, safely!) and embedded advertising-ready rebellion. Maybe you should go run another cover piece about Bob Dylan and Tom Petty together again, or Neil Young and his guitar! Like all the other fallen giants, you've let 'trending' become the new version of stock market panics, all real guts and glory trampled underfoot in the stampeded to avoid being trampled by your own clod readers. 

"National Anthem," ISLE OF THE DEAD
Most filmmakers and artists and musicians only think of themselves, of their hunger for fortune and fame, or their ennui after achieving all their goals and realizing the hunger still remains. But some of us know well that every film, post, or album we make will survive our own death --and it haunts us. We know black magic's promise of eternal youth, of the ghost in the machine, the threading spools running emulsion past the projector beam light measuring images and spinning shutter rotary out in 1/24 second still images that give the actor on the wall the only immortality there is. The Bing Crosby songs from the 30s radio shows are still flying out into space, signals coasting farther and farther away, just waiting for the right crystal skull receiver. These signals will, in a century or so, be still traveling, more alive than our own cracked and disintegrating skulls. Compared to this eventual alien Akashic record-style idea of future reception, any reward of fame in this lifetime is paltry. Some of us know we're long dead already, but we have our living image, our words and voice, out there, up there, in the ether, the WiFi signals drifting out in waves recorded by time, or down in the teraflop stone tapes. Even if no one reads us or sees our art in our lifetime, we can die easy. 

Some, like Val Lewton and Lana Del Rey, take this weird solace one step further, enacting rituals of death and transfiguration for posterity and mimetic power in much the way the Gunfight at the OK Corral is recreated on the streets of Tombstone by scholars with big gun collections. Thus the JFK Zapruder footage will endure any memory of the actual presidency of JFK, and in doing a macabre, melancholy homage to this ritualized repetition-compulsion, Del Rey cracks the door handle to the beyond. You can feel it in her sad puppy eyes, the fusion of sex, sadness, lost, lust and American-style freedom, the sort of sad-eyed lady of the lowlands that always needs to be courting death to feel alive, that lives in the crevasses of national tragedies like a sexy afterthought. It's there in the films of Val Lewton too. Watch the first four of Lewton's RKO horrors interspersed with a few Lana Del Rey videos all in the same night (the older ones--"National Anthem," "Video Games," "Born to Die," and "Summertime Sadness") and before you die you shall see their America of ghosts. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Wes Anderson vs. the Trust Fund Marxists + 10 Classic films for fans of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

From top: Grand Budapest; Life and Death of Col. Blimp

If you're as keen as I am for pre-code Lubitsch like The Love Parade, Trouble in Paradise, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You, and The Merry Widow (this Tues on TCM!), and love Wes Anderson's previous films, then you surely can/have/will appreciate the icy frosting splendor over-melancholy birthday cake of their combined flavor in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), released this week on DVD. Those enthralled by Renoir will appreciate oblique references to Grand Illusion; there are also the McGuffins of Hitchcock to be found; clues and puzzles too, like The Riddler might tell on Batman; the gorgeous colors of Powell-Cardiff-Pressburger float about; the candy coatings of McGonigle are notable, as are the epic swirls of modernist Cy Twerlington --all are swirled together as if by an overexcited boy using his sister's dollhouse and tea set to relay a tale within a tale to agog younger siblings.

Seems this dollhouse hotel is run like clockwork by assiduous major domo Ralph Fiennes and his deadpan Muslim lobby boy (Tony Revolori), the latter earning the film's romantic angle, the only woman protagonist (the ubiquitous Saoirse Ronan) in the film. She dies somewhere along the time line and he grows up to be F. Murray Abraham, narrating the tale to writer Jude Law in the now gone-to-Communist bloc grey hotel, decades later. Law writes it all down, and in the future it's read by a bright young Slav girl - in the final, outer layer of the narrative Russian doll.

Anderson's previous film, Moonrise Kingdom (see my best of 2012 list) surged with young outlaw lovers' momentum detached cool and fervent devotion. It marked real progress forward for Anderson, whose past films all focused more on an emotionally-stunted father-son bromance compromised by rivalry over girls generally too mature and/or damaged for either of them to handle. Moonrise was like if Max in Rushmore hooked up with Gweneth Paltrow in Royal Tenenbaums - his two coolest characters --and neither was tongue-tied or awkward around the other but pre-possessed with the refreshing eerie confidence that the first flush of mutual attraction can bring.

But the relationship at the heart of Budapest indicates a racing away from the palm sweat stress of first love, the dangerous thrill of romance bringing confidence rather than fear. Wes heads back to the safety of the father-son surrogate bromances of his pre-Moonrise films. But--as are all attempts to climb inside the tattered remains of an old cocoon (take it from me)--it's kind of sad this reversal of progress, the capering and gamboling are less vital this time. The word on the street is that you need to see this film a few times to get all the little details, but the thing is, I don't want to. I'm not even sure I want to see Moonrise Kingdom again, at least not at the moment. What if a second viewing dims my love? Better the safety of one more viewing of The Expendables 2. Stallone, now that's a "mature" man's man! Movies about 18 year-olds in 60 year old bodies, rather than 13 year-olds in 30-40 year-old bodies, you see the grand difference, my son?

That said, the critical and financial box office success of Grand Budapest is a good sign for future auteur "quirk" art, which isn't necessarily great for "art" art, or that last bastion of hardscrabble art world outsiders, 'folk art.' Lovingly ornate tracking shots, quaint train set miniatures, impeccable 30s costumery and decor (bright pinks and deep purples) and wistful rainy day isolation hint of some deep meaning within its message about how fascism, Communism, and Nazism destroyed humanity's confidence in itself, and cakes stopped being decadent, risks trivialization. In the end it leaves one wondering if Anderson has anything left to say, other than that he wants to go back in time and live in a grand hotel before the world wars destroyed such places. Must be nice to be rich enough you can stay in the few that are still standing, and bring your whole crew, too. Must be nice.

I don't blame Anderson for wanting a nice empty safe place where no one knows his name, where cavernous steam bath facilities and snowy mountain tops give him (and we the viewer) hot and cold extremes for maximum coziness. But just because Anderson uses a self-reflexive fractal inward spiral narrative doesn't mean his films gets to shirk the cumbersome duty of meaning something. For all its feints at political relevance, Anderson's film is just a delusional reverie imagining how nice it would have been to be a first class traveller in the days before the Nazis destroyed most of fancy Europe. It's all dressed up and does have a few worthy places to go, so why does it feel still lost?

Viva La Revolution! 
Putting one's own private nostalgic wistfulness on the big screen is the purview of the rich, who can afford to create their pet time travel realities, as Woody Allen does in Midnight in Paris (see: Oscar Picks of the Bourgeoisie - in Salieri Shades). These dreamers can afford to create their own past worlds to vanish into. So while a state-funded auteur like Bergman could create vast worlds of resonance out of two women's faces in black and white close-up, he couldn't afford to build an escape-into past (unless you count Smiles of a Summer Night). For Bergman, stripping down his style only deepened his resonance, proving that where art cinema is concerned, more is less and Bibi and Liv's faces are timeless. But Budapest illustrates how unlimited freedom allows for laziness; excessive details undermine resonance. Anderson can only reap a few chuckles from the vast quantity of faces and minutely-painted flea circus settings, so it seems only fair that the military uprisings that bookend portions of this film should occur, the Iron Curtain evening up the playing field. No more rich folks getting treated like kings. Let them all eat bread. No cake!

As for Communism's good side, Anderson never shows us the starving, huddled masses who aren't willing or able to work and scrape obsequiously in 24 hours a day service for rich tourists. They might like the uniform grey and suppression of the individual, because it means they eat regularly, and are suddenly the equal of any rich punter.

It's them, the workers, Anderson should be scared of!

That said, I'm on congressional record railing against the Trust Fund Marxist movement (see: Sullivan's Jet Travels: Rich Kid Cinema) and as much as Anderson seems to be railing against spoiled rich kid collaborators in Budapest, I respect his frivolous whims. Evoking the big pre-code split during the Great Depression between social message films like Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Saleand musicals and escapism like 42nd Street, the Sullivans and Andersons of the world often don't factor in that their glorification of the poor might be just the imagination of a lonely Little Lord Fauntleroy, whose only friends are the household servants, and how important it is for him to feel he's bringing joy and fullness he brings to their lives by giving them the chance to serve his every need.

As one of the middle class, I can vouch that the our fantasy of being rich seldom includes having servants. But servants are an inescapable part of real wealth. And as Hegel knows, never having to ever have to fend for oneself gradually leaves the rich so unprepared for life that it's critical to their sense of self to believe there's a bond other than their room, board, and paycheck, by which their household staff are bound to them, that the servants and hoteliers love serving them hand and foot, for service's own sake, and would never abandon their 'betters' to starve or have to pack their own bags, even if said betters never tipped a dime.

Reality is surely different, but in Anderson's world these usually tertiary characters all work their fingers to the bone, 24 hours a day, to make the Grand Budapest excellent --why? Because they love to serve the jet set? Non, monsieur, because Wes Anderson's camera transcends both the trust fund 'present of liberty' Kane-ism and the socialist hand-wringing of Sullivan, and does so without careening into the life-is-a-circus Fellini-ism, just barely. So what else is left in its stead?

Let us recall that quote from William Powell as Godfrey Parks (left), the rich scion who finds his mojo by becoming first a forgotten man and then a butler for a spoiled dingbat family in My Man Godfrey. "You're proud of being a butler?" asks a bewildered Eugene Pallette. "I'm proud of being a good butler, sir," Powell says. "And  if I may so, sir, one has to be good to put up with this family." In other words, excellence of service is its own reward, even when those being served are undeserving. This pride in performance sets vast karmic chains in motion wherein even labeling someone as undeserving of special service is forgotten, as unless all judgment is suspended, there can be no good fortune. As with cult leaders, there's absolutely no difference between finding pure freedom through selfless service and being an exploitable dupe. As with the 'glorious' martyrdom offered unwed mothers in soaps of the 1930s-50s after they work their fingers to the bone for undeserving illegitimate D.A. sons, there's the dubious aftertaste that this martyrdom is really in the service of some nefarious evil 1% patriarchy, one that plays up the grace and nobility of being a second-class citizen in this, the greatest of all possible worlds, but would never be sucker enough to believe it themselves.

On the flipside of that, there's the trust fund Marxist, who blames "the rich" (i.e. his dad) for sucking the blood of the proletariat in his own (parent-funded) films. He's glamorizing the poor - but must I reach for my frothy tome of 'wise old sayings by butlers?' to find out what Burrows said to Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels (above) in order to dissuade him from his grand slumming odyssey, that "only the morbid rich would find the subject glamorous"?

Godard's La Chinoise 
Godard is my boiler plate for my Trust Fund Marxist theory, but I still love him because he's French, and so remains hilarious despite and even because of his leftist propaganda; he's trying so hard, awww, to connect the New Wave with Eisenstein, that he actually takes his own bullshit seriously, which is great. Because unless a Frenchman is actually trying to be funny, he's intrinsically hilarious; that's why the more Jean Pierre Leaud tries to look politically serious, the funnier he is. He's like Harpo Marx crossed with Young Trotsky in Love. But when he tries to be funny, ugh.... kill me.

That's the strange rich kid cinema angle that is both transcended and indulged by Anderson's film. The leads of Grand Budapest become rich because they are tireless, loyal, fearless servers of the rich, as apt an illustration of bootstrap capitalism as you're likely to find. They reject the communist ideal of equality as a given, due perhaps to proximity to the wealthy (and ample leftovers back in the kitchen) making privilege seem ever obtainable. Their jobs are frivolous -- bellhopping and major domoing aren't necessary as we all know from carrying our own duffel into a Ramada-- and so their indispensability must be underwritten by adoring old lady residents leaving them fortunes in their wills for sexual services rendered. Meanwhile the unwavering subservience of the hard-working baker (Saoirse Ronan) laboring under the callous gaze of the owner seems a bit strange. A girl this hot and fearless wouldn't need to sweat her days away in a bakery making ornate sugar-coated little cakes for the rich and imprisoned! She'd be a first-rate government agent or high-end prostitute. And is there a difference? Not according to Hitchcock or Josef von Sternberg!


1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
1943 - Dir. Powell and Pressburger 
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's tale covers a similar 'decline of old Europe' canvas in its chronicle of of a German spy in pre-WWI Vienna, a duel with a German who will become his best friend, and World War I as recalled in the mind of an old general wrestling his younger secretary's fiancee in a Turkish bath in the early days of WW2 England. Jack Cardiff's eye-popping colors and the superlative set design make even the war ravaged countryside beautiful, and it shares Budapest's melancholy air as the onrush of mechanized warfare slowly obliterates the sporting codes and artistic splendor of old-world class.

2. The Love Parade
1929 - dir. Ernst Lubitsch
One of Lubitsch's less-revered works, this has Maurice Chevalier as a romantic soldier who winds up marrying the queen of his small country, the sort that would cease to exist when the map was redrawn at the end of WWI and then be completely obliterated by the end of WW2.

3. Shanghai Express
1932 - dir. Josef Von Sternberg
What better place to ride from Peking to Shanghai than in a first class train compartment with two cultured high fashion courtesans like Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, especially if they take such languid pleasure in shocking an MGM-style fussbudget boarding house matron. Dietrich is at her most luminous and morally ambivalent, and incredibly cool and the Chinese civil war (that left them susceptible to Japanese invasion) makes an intriguing backdrop.  See: 1933, not 1939 was the greatest year for Hollywood Movies...

4. Trouble in Paradise
1932- dir. Ernst Lubitsch
It took awhile for this pre-code Paramount to resonate with me, but now I dig that it doesn't 'Americanize' the dialogue like so many lazier Hollywood films, instead playing up the linguistic difficulties where everyone in Europe is constantly searching for the one language each of them knows just a little bit of, as in the excited way the Italian hotelier translates EE Horton's story of how he got robbed in his room. Like in BUDAPEST, a great fuss is made of getting the first-class hotel experience exactly right, and while Herbert Marshall isn't Cary Grant, or even Ronald Coleman, he's also not George Brent. When the situation demands it, he swoons with the best of them and even convinces you--through two layers of subterfuge--that he's genuinely in love with the moon (he wants to see it reflected in the champagne)  (See: Pre-Code Capsules 9)

5. Grand Hotel
1932- dir. Edmund Goulding
Greta Garbo is the melancholy ballerina who finds a reason to dance again after she falls for the down-and-out baron (John Barrymore). In another room a ravishing young secretary (Joan Crawford) succumbs joylessly to the advances of an arrogant industrialist (Wallace Beery, with a terrible buzz cut). In yet another thread, a fatally ill office clerk (Lionel Barrymore) drains his life savings in a desperate effort to derive some first-class pleasure from this bleak and brief existence. Downstairs at the bar, a disfigured doctor (Lewis Stone) dispenses wry commentary as people come and go. (MUZE) 

6. The Saragossa Manuscript
1965- dir. Wojciech Has
Like the narrative framework of an Eastern European girl reading a novel at the graveside of an author whom we meet in flashback who in turn hears the story from one of its participants, this Eastern European film is told via an ever-more-innate story within a story within a story structure and set in a colorful past that may never have existed but at any rate is now certainly gone,

7. Secret Agent
1936 - dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Set in the Alps (via Gaumont's finest painted backdrops), this tale of intrigue is a fine companion to Hitchcock's original version of The Man who Knew too Much. John Gielgud doesn't make much of an impression in the lead but he looks a bit like Ralph Fiennes and hey! Peter Lorre's in it. The ever- saucy Madeleine Carroll makes a fine femme fatale (though is way too flippant and disagreeable to make a good spy) and there's a memorable chase through a Swiss chocolate factory. One of my favorite $10 public domain titles I got as a kid, from Waldenbooks at the mall, in the early years of VHS. I've seen it 200 times, but not once in the last 20 years. It needs to be on Criterion!

8. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
1969 - dir. Peter R. Hunt
Bond in the Alps, and a great skiing downhill chase, slalom, ski jumping, cable car rides, as well as the cool vibe of having to take long cable cars to visit the evil Telly Savalas' lair. He hypnotizes a bevy of socialite debs as they sleep using colored lights and his own grinning, cigarette-congested voice uttering instant mix CD-worthy lines like "You love chickens..." That part has no bearing on Budapest, but I love it. And the Alpine adventures and clues and skulking are all on point.

9. Torn Curtain
(1966) - dir. Alfred Hitchcock
This later period Hitchcock film doesn't get the love it deserves, but Wes Anderson is beholden to it for the flavor of Eastern European intrigue and the near-silent museum chase scene (just the sound of footsteps for suspense, etc.), and the anxiety of being asked to present your papers and/or discovered on some Communist bloc public conveyance. It's worth revisiting, and I wrote about it way back in '04 here

10. Million Dollar Legs
(1932) - dir. Edward F. Cline
Co-written by Citizen Kane scribe Joseph L. Mankiewicz with uncredited touch-ups by the great Ben Hecht, Million Dollar Legs is the nationalism-satirizing predecessor of Marx Bros' Duck Soup, which makes sense since the heroine in Legs was married to Harpo Marx. Cockeyed Caravan's Matt Bird calls her "absurdly deadpan." Centering around the fictional nation of Klopstockia with its majordomo who can run faster than a speeding car, the president (W.C. Fields) stays on top of his plotting cabinet through games of toss wrestling, and there's a Mata Hari-style hottie spy (doing a great Garbo impression, "I'm wery fond of yumpers!"). Budapest fans will dig the colorful cast and pre-WWII fictionalized little mountain nation vibe.
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